I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
American Pie lyrics
With little exception, I have played guitar almost daily for sixty-two years.
It all began in the mid-50s, when I was fourteen years old. My Dad took me to see a traveling road show of the Grand Ole Opry that had come to our hometown of Richmond, Virginia. At one point in the show, a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in loose belted grey slacks, a blue checked cotton shirt with a grey suit coat and no tie, walked out alone onto the stage, sat in a straight-backed wooden chair, plugged a fancy red electric guitar into some hidden amplifier and then began to play, all by himself.
He played mostly crowd favorites: instrumental versions of rock songs hugely popular at the time, some bossa novas, a familiar classical piece, and a few well-known country hymns. The music contained bass lines spread over the lower strings, small chord harmonies in the middle, and clear, pristine melodies on the top strings - all played at once. Within the absence of varying timbres, he still sounded like a small orchestra. His name was Chet Atkins.
I turned to my father and said “Daddy, I want to learn to do that.”
And that Christmas, I found a basic wooden acoustic guitar, a tobacco sunburst Silvertone made by Sears, Roebuck, in a flimsy black cardboard case under the tree. There was also an envelope threaded through the strings over the sound hole; the certificate inside the envelope informed me I would get a year’s lessons, once a week, at a local music studio.
Soon I was going, faithfully and willingly every week, downtown to a three-story converted row house for these lessons. I dutifully practiced the assigned pieces from the Mel Bay song books, slowly learning to read sheet music (for TAB had not yet caught on, and YouTube lessons were still a figment of the future), but I was mostly interested in practicing the Chet Atkins pieces my teacher, a thin college student with wavy red hair, played well on a guitar like Chet’s; there was no music or other written notation for these pieces, my teacher just showed me how to play them in the time-honored tradition of “you place these fingers here, then you move to place these fingers here…”, all the while breaking the song down into comprehensible short phrases.
I later came to call this the “geographic” method of learning music on the fretboard grid. It had nothing to do with the structure of the music itself; it was all about location, location, location within the indicated squares. It became my preferred methodology; I even invented my own system (similar to TAB) that allowed me to transcribe these, my arrangements, for posterity. As if anybody might someday care.
It wasn’t long before I gravitated to other guitarists, jazz players such as Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell, classical musicians such as Laurindo Almeida and Andes Segovia, and bossa players like Charlie Byrd. In all cases, they were instrumentalists. There were never any vocals involved. Who cared? I didn’t sing, and I couldn’t even vocally carry a tune unless I was singing along with someone else that could. So, words didn’t matter. It was the sound that counted.
This went on for the next thirty-five years. I developed quite a few arrangements of all sorts of tunes, mostly what are now referred to as selections from the Great American Songbook, which is not an actual book, but a generally agreed-upon list of standard tunes generated largely by American composers. Many of these were what were known as “show tunes”, selections penned for popular theatrical or movie productions. They often had lyrics. I never bothered with them; since I didn’t sing, words didn’t matter.
Over time, and with a lot of practice, I got pretty good at doing this. Since I had started off with music by learning to read the treble clef in standard notation, I even taught myself how to read the bass clef, and then I bought piano sheet music arrangements of the tunes I liked and arranged them for myself into full-voiced solo instrumental transcriptions, what are called chord-melody pieces, for guitar.
I began to go to open mics, where I would play one or two of my selections for the others who came. Most of these others were what are now called “folkies”, primarily people who sang, well or badly, and played rudimentary guitar chords to accompany themselves. I didn’t talk at these things much; I just played my progressively intricate instrumental pieces and got off-stage. I didn’t sing, so words didn’t matter.
After several decades of this, at some point I became bored with this activity. My music arrangements never varied; even once I understood enough music theory to improvise melodies, they then became set pieces that I rarely changed or strayed from (and thus became something other than improvisations). I was supposedly expressing myself (even though I was barely expressing my self), but only partially, and only through vehicles originally designed by others.
Concurrently, as a former English literature major who liked to write, I realized that, when it came to expressing my self, words did matter, and so I began to write more: frequent journal entries, then short prose pieces, and even some poetry. I became obsessed with doing this, and neglected playing guitar for a couple of years, while I spent most of my spare time writing and sending out submissions to small literary magazines that, if they accepted my work, mostly paid me in free copies of the publication. I even got nominated for a Pushcart prize once. But I didn't win anything.
Once I realized I was probably not destined to become the next big thing in American literature, I quit writing so frequently and returned to playing guitar. My skill set was by then quite rusty from prolonged disuse, and it took me a while to regain the muscle memory and digital technique required for skilled fingerstyle playing, but I persevered, regaining my former abilities as I relearned my arrangements from my TAB transcriptions, and once again I returned to the open mic scene.
All went well for quite some time, until I again became bored with my own musical arrangements and my seeming inability to break free of them, and I longed for what I now see as the relative freedom and flexibility afforded by stringing words together. At long last, I have finally come to the conclusion that, where individual expression is concerned, words really do matter. When stringing words together, the infinite choices available are what create the nuances and subtleties that define individuality, and it’s best when it’s all done in a language that can be understood and mutually comprehended by others who speak it.
And it turns out that this is what is really important to me. I’ve finally come to realize that it’s who I am as an individual that matters, not just to me, but to others, and that others (including myself) aren’t likely to be able to comprehend that individuality without communication that involves word usage, words that are understood and appreciated equally by all involved.
So, music is great, even and especially instrumental music. But for me, it’s no longer enough, in that it doesn’t really express me. And since I seem mainly to be a one-trick pony, the trick henceforth is to beguile you with what I say, not with what I might be able to do without saying anything.
After all, in some respects, without the individuality of words, it’s all just noise, as pleasant as it may be…